NEW YORK, NY
June 01, 2010
— Over Memorial Day weekend, as the hordes descended in various
states of undress upon the shores of New Jersey, about 1,600 Muslim
athletes took a different tack: they headed inland to a nondescript high
school sports complex in South Brunswick. They were there to
participate in the 4th annual Islamic Games, the largest event of its
kind in the country.
The event has attracted not only more
athletes each year, but corporate sponsors as well. It was started by
Salauddeen Nasarudeen, an ad man of Indo-Caribbean extract who seems
equally comfortable in shorts and baseball cap as he is observing
"We try not to make it religious," he said of the
Games. "We try to do something that is sporty, that is fun, that is
exciting. We bring colors, we bring music--we bring sponsors! We do all
this nice stuff. Because at the end of the day America is in a whirlpool
of entertainment and Muslims are also in that whirlpool."
he spoke, Arabic music floated over the lawns where the athletes
competed in everything from soccer and tennis to cricket, arm wrestling
and basketball. Nearby a pair of girls volleyball teams faced off across
the net. The players on one team were dressed in jeans or track pants
and wore long-sleeved T-shirts under matching black T-shirts. Everyone
had covered their hair with headscarves. It was a warm day but if they
were hot, they didn't let on.
"We're really good," one girl told
me, giggling at her own bravado as her friends listened in and giggled
in harmony. "We won first place volleyball every year. We don't know
about this year, but Inshallah we'll do good."
mother of one of the players, Fidaa Abuhaltam, was happy to be at the
event. But she did worry about exposing the girls to the eyes of
"I'd rather have adults with them. Because
Shaitan"--Satan--"is always there with us and we can always be misled in
many ways. Even right now. I'm against the girls being out here. I'm
not too happy that the girls are playing volleyball out. I rather have
them inside. I believe we shouldn't be jumping too much."
parental concern explains why some of the events--girls basketball and
martial arts--were held indoors, off limits to any men. But the Islamic
Games clearly fulfilled a need. This year registration was up by 20
percent overall, but among female athletes it was up 40 percent. Players
and parents alike seemed reassured by the values of the event. That
included the 1:30 pm prayer break, when hundreds of athletes and elders
assembled on the football field and bowed down in the same direction,
chanting "Allahu akbar."
diversity of the Islamic Games was fairly striking--the participants,
according to organizers, came from 32 national backgrounds including the
countries of South Asia, Indonesia, the Middle East, Africa and Bosnia.
One person who stood out was a tall, blond, non-Muslim referee, Eric
Hall. He felt that compared to mainstream sporting events, the Muslim
athletes here were unfailingly polite.
"They feel they can sit
down and talk to the person on the other team," he said, as players
bopped a volleyball around him, "and say something to them that would be
positive, instead of saying 'We lost, we won,' and going on to the next
He wasn't the only one to sense that difference between a
mainstream sporting event and a Muslim one.
"Just yesterday I was
in the park playing basketball with a bunch of non-Muslims," said
Omowale Abdulwali, an African American who had converted from
Christianity. "And they were cursing at one another, because they're
upset about losing a game. Talking about their mothers and inviting each
other to their private parts and all that. Us Muslims, we have the same
competitive spirit, but we remain within the guidelines."
Games wound down, there were occasional scenes of celebration, as teams
claimed their respective honors. One of them called themselves JB's
Babyz (after their coach, JB) and had come from Westchester to compete
in the Under 14 girls volleyball event. The girls excitedly posed with
their trophy as their relatives snapped photos. One of them, Zubaida
Kareemuddin, said her elders were initially worried the girls might get
hurt playing volleyball. Eventually though, they too got in the spirit
of the competition.
"They were praying for us all night and
today," she said. "And even when we were playing the game, they were
sitting there, all eager and they were praying for us. And it was really
nice to see that. It just touched our hearts."
(Photos by Arun Venugopal)